Apple last week released iTunes 4.9, adding extensive support for finding, subscribing to, and managing podcasts, which are audio files that are made available for anyone on the Internet download and listen to (see "Podcasting: The People's Radio" in TidBITS-766). The new podcast support adds to iTunes functionality that previously required the use of separate programs such as iPodder, iPodderX, NetNewsWire, and others. With iTunes 4.9, Apple has made the process of finding, subscribing to, and listening to podcasts simpler than ever before, but notable confusions and oversights remain to be corrected in future versions of iTunes.
Discovering/Subscribing/Managing Podcasts -- Launch iTunes 4.9, and you'll see a new Podcasts item in the left-hand column (the Source pane). This is the management interface for podcasts to which you've subscribed. Syndicated podcasts that you can choose to receive appear in the iTunes Music Store as a new genre when browsing.
To view Apple's directory of podcasts, click the Podcast Directory link at the bottom of the screen. Or, you can click the Music Store link in the Source pane, and choose the Podcasts link to browse. As with music in the store, a glitzy page showcases podcasts. Select a podcast or a podcast category to see the same familiar views used to navigate and buy music. The podcast directory is haphazard, containing some moribund podcasts and lacking others that are current, active, and quite popular. Luckily, Apple provides a way on the main Podcasts page in the store to suggest new podcasts and also a way to request the removal of a podcast. Apple hasn't clarified how they will opt to follow suggestions for addition or removal.
Once you find podcasts that interest you, subscribe to them by clicking a simple Subscribe button (which replaces the "Buy" button found on songs). The podcast is listed on your Podcasts page, and the most recent episode is automatically downloaded (more on this later).
All podcasts currently in the iTunes Music Store are free, but there is no reason to assume that this will always be the case. Apple appears to be preparing for that day by featuring podcasts offered by larger media outlets, including public radio, while relegating the early initiators of the distribution format to an Indie category that appears at the bottom of the Podcasts splash page. (Of course, some podcasters will welcome a mechanism by which they can offer for-fee podcasts for premium content just the way that certain radio shows are sold via Audible, Apple, and others now.)
You're not limited to Apple's list, of course. To subscribe to a podcast that's not in Apple's directory, you must first find the syndication link that includes podcasts on the site that's offering the audio downloads. Copy the link, which often ends in .rss or .xml. Then choose Subscribe to Podcast from the Advanced menu in iTunes 4.9 and paste the link. Click OK, and if the link is correct, the podcast appears in the Podcasts list via the Source menu.
Unsubscribing to a podcast is a two-step process. First, you select the podcast in the list and click the Unsubscribe button in the bottom right of the iTunes window. This leaves the podcast listed among your subscribed podcasts with a Subscribe button next to it and retains all episodes you have already downloaded. To remove it (and all episodes) from the list you must Control-click on it and choose Clear from the contextual menu. If you perform this second step first, you can unsubscribe and delete all podcast files at once.
Setting Podcast Preferences -- In the iTunes 4.9 preferences, you can set the frequency that iTunes checks for new episodes, how many to download if there are more than one at the time checked, and how many to retain.
Unfortunately, these preferences are global for all podcasts, lacking the granular control provided by other programs that specialize or include podcasts. For instance, NetNewsWire Pro 2.0 allows you to set automatic downloads (but not the number of downloads or items retained) for each feed, as well as a global preference.
A new setting in the iTunes preferences lets you choose which podcasts are synchronized to your iPod (all models except the iPod shuffle, to which you must copy podcasts manually, since Autofill ignores podcasts, much as it ignores audio books) and, of those subscriptions, whether so synchronize all, new, unplayed, or checked episodes. On the iPod, podcasts are also grouped into a single Podcasts playlist and do not appear in other playlists unless you manually put them there in iTunes. Click Wheel iPods display a top-level Podcasts menu item; podcasts on older iPods appear as a Podcasts playlist.
Managing Podcasts -- In iTunes, podcasts are grouped together into the Podcasts entry in the Source list on the left. In fact, they are listed only there; they do not show up in the main library, nor do they appear in any playlists. You can add them to normal playlists manually, but you cannot use smart playlists to manage your podcast listening, a major oversight on Apple's part.
A blue dot next to a podcast name indicates an unheard episode. As with other songs in iTunes, a small speaker icon next to the name indicates that you are listening to, or were in the middle of listening to, a show.
By opening the disclosure triangle next to each podcast in your subscription list, you can view all episodes currently listed in the podcast's syndication feed, which is usually the last five episodes. Download shows that have not been retrieved already by clicking the Get Show button.
To find older episodes, you must visit the podcast's Web site, which takes some doing. First, you must click the right-facing arrow after the podcast's name (assuming you haven't turned these arrows off in your iTunes preferences.) If the podcast is not in the iTunes Music Store (that is, you subscribed to it manually), you will go directly to that podcast's Web site. If, however, the podcast is in the store, you will go to its page in the store where you will find a link to take you to its Web site.
A welcome addition is the information button (an i in a circle) to the far right of each episode which displays the show notes for that episode. Show notes are information - metadata, more technically - about each episode provided by the show's creator. Now you can see what a given show is about before you download it. (This metadata is indexed by Spotlight, making it easier to find archived podcasts on a system running Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger.)
As noted earlier, the TiVo-like options in iTunes preferences for choosing whether to keep All, All Unplayed, Most Recent, or 2, 3, 4, or 10 episodes can't be set on a podcast-by-podcast basis. Some people may want to keep only the latest versions of podcasts rather than letting them pile up and filling their hard drive while others may be devotees of certain shows and want to hear every single one, no matter how far behind they may fall. I like to keep all the episodes of serials such as The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd regardless of whether they have been heard or not (my five-year-old loves them), whereas I'd prefer to keep only the most recent episode of news-based shows. The only workaround is to keep everything and manually delete older episodes, a tedious process at best.
In another oversight, iTunes could better refine how it manages podcast files. If I listen to an episode and want to remove the file from my hard drive, the only option within iTunes is to select the episode and hit the Delete key, or Control-click it and choose Clear. That action removes the entry from the list of episodes and, optionally, the file from my hard drive. But what if I later want to download it again for some reason? It no longer even appears in the list of episodes with a Get button. It's completely gone. The only way I can find to remove a file but leave the entry in the list is to Control-click on the entry, choose Show Song File from the contextual menu, and then manually move it to the Trash. Even then, the show is still listed as if it were still there and there is no Get button even after iTunes figures out that the file is missing.
Listening to Podcasts -- Listening to podcasts in iTunes is the same as listening to any music: double-click and listen (or select the podcast and click the play button). iTunes remembers at which point you left off if you stop listening to an episode, so you can easily go back to that point - regardless of file format, which is convenient and a welcome addition to iTunes.
But iTunes 4.9 also suffers from a major bug in that a podcast is marked as played the instant you begin listening to it, as opposed to when you finish listening to it, as with songs. So, if you have iTunes set to keep only unplayed podcasts and you listen to the first 10 seconds of a podcast and then stop to save it for later, it will vanish the next time iTunes updates (according to the schedule you have set in iTunes Preferences). This bug also affects synchronization to an iPod if you base the sync on unplayed episodes. Apple should either create a new category called "In Progress" so you know which podcasts you are in the middle of, or they should treat podcasts like all other music: consider a file as played only within a few seconds of the end. Personally, I'd like to see both: consider a podcast unheard until the last few seconds (not the actual last second as the iPod does) and provide a way to see which podcasts I have started but not finished.
Apple introduced its own podcast, the New Music Tuesday Podcast, which demonstrates a new, exciting feature: bookmarks within a single podcast. Apple's podcast showcases a number of different artists, and as the podcast plays, the album art display on the lower left changes to reflect the current artist. In addition, a new bookmarks menu appears to left of the main track display to provide immediate access to each artist/segment in the list. Apple also released a beta command line tool called the Podcast Chapter Tool which helps power users build their own such menus for their shows. To download it, click Publish a Podcast in the Podcasts page of the iTunes Music Store, click Learn More about Podcasting on iTunes, and scroll all the way to the bottom of that page.
Podcasts work on all iPods, but an updater released last week for fourth generation iPods - those with the click wheel - provides additional podcast support, such as bookmarkability for all podcasts regardless of format, the capability to display show notes by clicking the center button twice, and scrolling long podcast names in the main display. It's possible that older iPods may pick up these new features as well in the future, much as most of the new features of the Click Wheel iPods were rolled out to earlier generation iPods some months after the Click Wheel models were released.
A Good Start, but More Work Needed -- Apple's entry into podcasting is the first for a major company and quite well done for an initial effort. That said, there are a number of significant problems that need to be addressed. I suspect many power users will prefer to stick to their current methods of podcast management so they can continue to take advantage of smart playlists, better file management, and the like. But for the majority of users, iTunes 4.9 does the job and will help take podcasts further into the mainstream.
Support for the popularity of the feature comes from early reports that major media sites, like KCRW, have had enormous boosts in their podcast listenership since iTunes 4.9's release. The L.A. Times reported that KCRW saw an increase from 3,500 to 100,000 daily - yes, daily - downloads of its programs. Other reports noted that iTunes users signed up for a total of one million subscriptions in the first two days.
That popularity is also revealing a few kinks in the system: at least some subscriptions are redirected through Apple's servers rather than downloaded directly, and some of the more popular shows have appeared as inaccessible for some people. Hopefully, these are just short-term glitches.
iTunes 4.9 is free, and you can get it from Software Update or from Apple's Web site as an 11.1 MB download.
[Andy J. Williams Affleck is a project manager for a U.S. federal government contractor and an expert in usable accessibility in Web design. He's long been fascinated by any tool to allow the individual to communicate to others, be it newsletters, email, weblogs, podcasting, or whatever comes next.]